On 30 August 2014, Myanmar’s government released the preliminary results of the country’s first national census since 1983, but it has been overshadowed by controversy: despite pressure from rights organizations, individuals were not allowed to identify as members of Myanmar’s Muslim ‘Rohingya’ community. The Burmese government had taken the decision at the last minute due to fears that an inclusion of the Rohingya could spark inter-communal violence.
Ethnicity is highly politicized in the former Burma. The Rohingya in particular have long suffered from persecution and a denial of recognition. However, the census was held at a time of heightened tension: deeply rooted animosities between the Buddhist Burmese majority and the Rohingya minority erupted into violence in late 2012 and left entire villages razed and thousands displaced.
One immediate fall-out of the conflict has been the politicization of humanitarian aid. Aid organizations have been able to reach only a fraction of those in need, and their operations have been hampered by bureaucratic impediments and hostile propaganda. The result has been a rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation. Apart from the moral impetus to grant unrestricted access to those in need, the crisis, if unaddressed, will likely have long-term security implications for Myanmar and the wider region. A fast improvement of humanitarian access is critical for preventing a renewed escalation of violence and securing the country’s fragile transition.
A Protracted Conflict
Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country with many ethnic minorities. The Rohingya are mostly concentrated in the northwestern state of Rakhine and claim long ancestral roots in the area. Many Buddhists and the central government regard them as recent immigrants from Bangladesh.
Following Burma’s independence in 1948, discrimination against religious minorities was progressively institutionalized. Suspicion towards Muslims and the Rohingya in particular culminated in the 1982 Citizenship Law, which blocked any path to citizenship for unrecognized minorities. Ever since, the Roginya have beenstateless.
In mid-2012, decades of state-driven Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiments erupted into violent inter-communal clashes driven by hate speech and the growing influence of extremist-nationalist Buddhist movements. These have embarked on a campaign to ‘protect’ Myanmar’s Buddhist heritage from what many Burmese perceive to be a cultural encroachment of Islam.
Politicized Humanitarian Access
To date, almost 140,000 people, overwhelmingly Rohingya Muslims, remain internally displaced in Rakhine alone, according to UNHCR. Hundreds of thousands more live outside official camps or as refugees in neighboring countries. The acute lack of access to food, water, and basic medical care has driven a growing number of Rohingya to take thedangerous journey by boat in search for safety and recognition in Thailand, India, Malaysia or Indonesia.
Much of the disastrous conditions in and outside the camps can be attributed to afraught operating environmentfor humanitarian agencies. A climate of extreme ethno-religious polarization has given rise to intimidation and harassment of aid agencies servicing Rohingya.
In April 2014, international aid workers had to be evacuated from Rakhine after Buddhist mobs attacked the offices of several organizations in retaliation for an alleged ‘Rohingya bias’. This narrative has been deliberately fuelled by extremist-nationalist groups and tolerated by state authorities. The consequences of theexpulsion of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have been particularly severe. MSF had been the primary provider of basic health care in Rakhine. The government’s sporadic efforts to fill the vacuum have proven woefully inadequate, and disease and severe malnutrition have spiked.
After heightened international pressure, including from the United States, the Burmese government announced in August that MSF was free to resume its operations. While a positive signal, conditions have gravely deteriorated, and the political situation has not changed.
Risks of Destabilization
The humanitarian crisis in Rakhine has already had destabilizing effects, in Myanmar and the wider region. Relations with Bangladesh and Thailand are strained because of the influx of Rohingya refugees. The refugee crisis has fuelled organized crime such ashuman trafficking of undocumented Rohingya or their use as smugglersby drug cartels. In Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim-majority states, the crisis has sparked outrage and even anti-Myanmar protests.
Islamist extremist groups in both countries have threatened retaliation on behalf of their fellow Muslims in Myanmar. Organized Rohingya resistance has so far proven elusive, but it may become more likely with external support from regional terrorist networks. Al-Qaeda’s recent “launch” of an India branch indicates a broader strategy to capitalize on the mobilizing potential of marginalized Muslim groups throughout the region.
The Rohingya crisis, if unresolved, will severely disrupt Myanmar’s transition to stable democracy, which depends on the peaceful co-existence of its many ethnicities and good relations with neighboring countries. More resolute efforts to improve the humanitarian situation are crucial for preventing a new cycle of violence and longer-term destabilization. There are two immediate steps the government should take.
Restricted access for aid agencies has been the result of a climate of fear and radicalization fuelled by nationalist-extremist propaganda. Extremist Buddhist monks have been preaching violence against Muslims and aid workers with almost complete impunity. Enforcing a policy of “zero tolerance” for hate rhetoric and strengthening moderate Buddhist voices could open up possible pathways for de-escalation. To reinforce this approach, toxic rumours about aid agencies’ role and “bias” should be countered by a carefully planned outreach campaign aimed at communicating humanitarians’ intentions and activities to Rakhine’s Buddhist communities. Their fears are real and cannot be ignored. Some organizations have begun taking such steps; however, these cannot be effective without political support by government and local authorities.
Both measures will go a long way not only in securing better humanitarian access to a displaced population that is in urgent need of relief efforts, they might also prove to be vital trust building measures towards de-escalation.